The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Man Who Never WasBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 5 - The Man Who Never Was
Written by Gareth Roberts
Directed by Joss Agnew
Broadcast on CBBC- 17th - 18th October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

As might be expected, this story makes for an emotional viewing experience: the finale that never was. But with its concluding montage, and its reassuring message that Sarah Jane's adventures will go on “forever”, episode two – never meant as a last hurrah – is transformed into a fitting ending for the series. The Man Who Never Was already has the feeling of an “event” story given that it properly brings together Luke and Sky for the first time, uniting two eras of the SJA family. An appearance from K9 would have been nice too, but the character is at least referred to, as are UNIT. (And K9 does appear in the final montage, along with the tenth Doctor, and Yasmin Paige as Maria). It's also great to see Sarah Jane's status as a leading journalist reinforced, as well as her earning power being mentioned in order to explain exactly how the attic is financed.

Gareth Roberts' script is deliciously witty, whether smuggling in that “full stop” joke, acknowledging “Clani”, or satirically mocking technology launches, with the Serf Board eventually being revealed as “bobbins”. Joseph Serf might be a reference to The Prisoner and one of Patrick McGoohan's pseudonyms (that Serf was another non-existent man), but this charismatic Serf and his Serf Board also put one in mind of Apple product launches, making the story even more strange to watch. Sarah Jane and Joseph Serf; Elisabeth Sladen and Steve Jobs. It's a story permeated and almost overwhelmed by real-world loss, its fiction pixellating and glitching in the mind's eye, as reality threatens to break through the production of TV fantasy.

James Dreyfus as Harrison continues the Sarah Jane Adventures' tradition whereby comic actors play relatively straight roles, and Dreyfus convinces in moments of menace and glib corporate greed. The aliens he has subjugated appear to represent the evils of globalisation, where Asian sweatshops can be exploited for cheap labour by major corporations (and as such, it's surely no accident that the Scullions were recovered from a crash in “central Asia”).

Working to animate Serf, the Scullion workforce and their areas of responsibility – smile, legs, speech – remind one somewhat of the Teselecta and its crew. But The Sarah Jane Adventures' lighter tone shines through; rarely have schemes for global market domination been so thoroughly undermined by a typographical error or two. And Serf's manipulation is played as fairly broad comedy via Mark Aiken's mugging, whereas the Teselecta's humour hailed more from the incongruity and absurdism of the anti-bodies, as well as from Steven Moffat's quickfire dialogue. Each vehicle is ultimately controlled by our protagonists, whether it's Luke and Sky running Serf behind the scenes, or the Teselecta being commandeered. Magical technology is always neutral, it would seem: easily capable of being turned against its villainous paymasters, and rapidly used for good rather than evil. Perhaps it's one of the great myths of our time – that the “little people” can fight back by readily twisting technology to suit themselves. Crush one pen, pull a few levers, and the Harrison chase is over.

Another SJA tradition is also returned to, namely that an older star TV actor will appear and pay tribute to Sarah Jane's charming nature. As Lionel Carson, Peter Bowles gets a little less to do than Nigel Havers did back in series three, but he flirts magnificently with Sladen, and the two convey great warmth and mutual respect. Characters Clyde and Rani also get to play at a relationship, taking on the role of married couple Trevor and Janet Sharp, a situation which Gareth Roberts mines for its comic potential. Like the preceding two stories making up this series, this is another accomplished production. In short, SJA bows out on a level of consistent excellence, and all involved should be proud of their work here.

This final story is as much about family as alien trafficking and capitalist exploitation. Sarah, Luke and Sky enjoy a “family outing” of sorts, and Clani refer to Clyde's picture being “a family thing”. Sarah's son and daughter make up an unconventional family unit – one that's entirely elective, and almost immediately harmonious. The old saying suggests “you can't choose your family”, but that's exactly what SJA says you can do. You can choose who to care for, and who to care about, just as Adriana does in this story (changing her own life in the process). Family in The Sarah Jane Adventures is not always fixed or inevitable. Instead, it is frequently chosen and embraced, rather like another six-letter word beginning with 'f': fandom. Sarah Jane might never have “expected to find a family”, but find one she did, just as Elisabeth Sladen perhaps unexpectedly found generations of fans. Fandom-as-family, and family-as-fandom; that's one lasting lesson of SJA. You – we – can always make the choice to care.

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. Your story will no doubt go on, in fans' writings, memories, and new adventures yet to be imagined...